Weed, Mormonism, and the Language of Sexual Politics

The Josh Weed story continues, as evidenced by the recent ABC News Nightline interview and continuing articles, blog posts, and mushrooming comments. The country is fascinated with this homosexual man with a purportedly happy and [even sexually] fulfilling marriage of over ten years.  He has raised interesting questions about the nature of homosexuality, marriage, and self, that I think have done a great deal to deepen and broaden the conversation.

In tackling one of the many elephants in the Mormon room, I am not going to attempt to explain what Mormons believe about gay marriage or homosexuality. My primary purpose in this post is to explore why these discussions can be polarizing and overly binary.  Part of the reason could be that some of the language used is employed as self-evident concepts, while conveying different meanings to different people. Words like “authentic,” “love,” “self,” “marriage,” and even “homosexual” are used as hinges in these discussions—but do people agree on what they mean? What might some Mormons, or other Christians, be hearing?  (A caveat: religious and civic discussions about gay marriage have different parameters; I will be focusing mostly on the former. Last point: keep in mind that I am trying to show the dialogue is complicated. Not how it can be resolved.)

Let’s take “self.” One of the reasons Josh Weed has been such a lightning rod is because he complicates the idea of being “true to yourself.”  Often, proponents of gay marriage argue that homosexuals  who do not express  their sexuality lead a false life of suppression or denial of who they “really are.” Underlying this assertion is the assumption that there is a cohesive, unitary self that should be freed from cultural, religious, etc., pressures, to be happy.  Josh Weed, to some proponents’ horror, claims that he is being true to himself.

The question is, which self?  As he has tried to explain in his interviews and posts, Weed finds himself conflicted by competing commitments and desires. This alone makes him no different than the rest of us—what makes him different is the extreme mutual exclusivity he sees in some of the more significant desires and commitments he experiences: his spiritual identity and his sexual identity. While we all make choices that liberate one identity while oppressing the other (choosing to be the “responsible self” over the “fun-loving self,” or the “serviceable self” instead of the “self gratifying self”), the choice between his sexual identity (attracted to men) and his spiritual identity (including the commitment to hetero-monogamous, family-oriented teachings originating in Mormonism’s dualistic, heterosexual divine model) was obviously more poignant.

In his words, “I feel like I am being true to myself and that I have looked at these two components of who I am and for me it was a matter of mutual exclusivity… I simply had to know myself and know what… would be best for my life and best for what I wanted for myself.”

John Dehlin, perhaps like many others, saw this choice as sacrificing an essential part of Weed’s identity for a constructed one: “Using religion or spirituality as a way to manage your sexual orientation…as a way to sort of suppress those feelings, or control yourself, is the most damaging way to cope with your same-sex attraction,” Dehlin said. The difference is clear: here, religion is an instrument, and sexual orientation is the essential identity. Josh Weed, as well as many other Mormons, may beg to differ.

While Mormonism still has much to explore by way of determining what parts of our identity are eternal, or essential, and what parts are ephemeral and constructed, it is not incoherent for Josh Weed to make the choice that his spiritual identity is essential and eternal, and his sexual identity is not, and to act accordingly. This consistency, at the very least, can be respected.

Furthermore, this pluralism of selves is at the heart of the Mormon–and Christian– paradigm.  Read Paul’s writings and try to find where his cohesive, unconflicted self is—he may have a thing to say about the dualistic battle between the carnal and spiritual man. Or peruse the Book of Mormon for the Anti-Nephi-Lehites’ opinions about what the atonement means for their rebirth, and the sacrifice of their former familial and cultural identity. Or we could wrestle with what Christ’s paradox of “losing our lives” to “find them.”

“Self” is just one example. If time permitted, I would try to do the same analysis with “love.”  Does “love” mean unconditional , comprehensive acceptance?  Or does it refer to an enabling esteem and compassionate regard?  One Christian might find the commandment to “love one another” to mean we should extend marriage rights regardless of orientation (though perhaps discriminating on number of partners). Another might find that same commandment, and it’s follow up “as I have loved you”, to mean that we treat fellow humans as beings of infinite worth, and to whom unqualified acceptance would be cheap and easy, unlike Christ’s invested and loving devotion (see C.S. Lewis’s “unstoppable surgeon.”)

Or we could do the same with “marriage” (consensual contract between two adults? consensual contract between any adults? consensual contract between two heterosexual adults with the explicit purpose, in principle, at least, to rear children?…) or “homosexual” (unchangeable essentialist identity? biological, chemical, or hormonal condition? preference?…) and the list goes on. Religious discussants on both sides would benefit from sacrificing some sound-bite slogans and pausing to clarify these terms for productive dialogue.


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  • http://timesandseasons.org Ben S
    • Rachael

      Fabulous article, Ben S. Thanks so much for sharing– it’s a very articulate and thoughtful treatment of the same theme, in more depth!

  • Seth

    Rachael, I think your analysis of “self” is really excellent – Weed serves as a caution against attempting to dictate the behavior that we think would be proper to someone else’s
    “true self” based on our own convictions, and to think hard about what kind of a “true self” we think exists prior to or outside of culture. I would say, though, that evidence suggests that suppressing this particular aspect of self typically causes a great deal of anguish for people who feel compelled to do so. Weed causes consternation because those of us who think that homosexuality is not something to be condemned or suppressed and support attempts to, for example, tell young people that “it gets better” are reluctant to accept evidence that, well, “it doesn’t have to get better” or whatever. Weed is an important reminder that we have to remain open to different alternatives and choices, and I’m glad that he doesn’t feel the strain that so many others do, but to the extent that he serves as a model for the effectiveness of suppressing homosexuality, his story is discomfiting.

    Secondly, while I love your analysis of “self” and insistence that participants in debate define their terms, I think it’s possible to take that impulse too far. “Self” and “love” are certainly open to that kind of analysis, as you demonstrate, but I’m not convinced that “marriage” and similar terms are, not in the same way at least. I know that you were trying to keep your analysis at the level of religious discourse, but in mentioning the various responses to Weed from “proponents of gay marriage” it seems clear that you’re not just talking about religious proponents (also, you do have “Politics” in the title…). “Marriage” in this wider debate seems, actually, pretty well defined by both sides: what’s at stake is access to a contract issued by the state, one that is a legal “bright line” that constitutes a status that you either have or you don’t have, one that has important consequences. The religious aspect is sort of already being worked out, while this civic question looms – many churches currently perform ceremonies for homosexual couples that are not by law able to reflect state-recognized marriages, and after gay marriage is legalized many churches will continue to refuse to marry homosexual couples, as will be their prerogative. The legal part is pretty clearly what’s being debated, and so to question what people mean by “civil equality” or “marriage equality” in these discussions runs the risk of appearing sort of deliberately obfuscating.

    On the polygamy question – I think Central Texan should add a d) to his or her list of responses – I think many proponents of marriage equality would extend that to include legal contracts made among more than two consenting adults. I’m not clear why Central Texan thinks it’s obligatory for proponents of gay marriage to fight that battle, too, though; asserting that the two are necessarily linked actually seems to me like a version of the “slippery slope” argument used against both gay marriage and polygamy.

    In any case, thanks for a thoughtful, thought-provoking post!

    • Rachael

      Thanks for the comment, Seth. I agree that Josh Weed’s path may be uncomfortable to some who think it creates pressure for others to do the same (though he repeatedly and explicitly discourages this assumption) but only if it’s misconstrued as a model for suppressing homosexuality. I think it’s much more than that; it makes us think twice about the nature of love, marriage, sexual intimacy; it’s a model of evaluating competing and conflicting desires, and making tough choices and acting on those choices; etc etc.

      I’m not sure I agree with your assessment of the gay marriage/polygamy assocation; to me, it’s not necessarily a slippery-slope argument (though I’d be interested to know why that doesn’t seem to appeal to you) as much as a recognition that voicing the marriage debate in terms of “individual rights” seems to legitimize associations based on mutual consent–any number of associations. On the other hand, the traditional definition of marriage as the sexual, legal, emotional union to produce and rear children is not based on “individual rights” as much as collective responsibilities, as I see it. Perhaps you could explain more? I have not yet read a “clear” definition of marriage that both sides seem to agree on. There seems to be substantial variation within the homosexual marriage movement, as well; some wish to eradicate the institution all together; others wish to adapt it to homosexual tendencies (like Dan Savage suggesting homosexual marriage could validate extramarital fidelity); while others wish to adopt the traditional model (2 parents and kids) to homosexual relationships. So my point still stands, I think, that these terms need to be clarified.

      • Seth Perry

        Hey Rachael — Those are all good distinctions. I think that however various people in the debate define marriage, what everyone is talking about changing (or not changing) are the terms of a legal contract (that’s what has changed in the states that have already acknowledged gay marriages): whatever else it is in public life, marriage is a contract between two people recognized by the state, one that places each person in a particular relationship with the other in the eyes of the law. Currently, in most places, states discriminates on the basis of sex in the application of that contract: one can only enter into it, and enjoy the legal benefits it bestows, with a member of the opposite sex, and eliminating that discrimination is what “legalizing gay marriage” is. (“Individual rights,” rather than discrimination, is another way of framing the argument; I happen to think it’s a weaker way.) Bringing polygamy into the discussion seems to me to be talking about creating a new sort of contract – a legal arrangement in which three or more people could enter into the relationship the state recognizes as marriage. That’s a thing that people can talk about; I just think it’s a different thing. The “slippery slope” part comes in when people say if we allow homosexual marriages or polygamy, I guess we have to allow incest or whatever, which just doesn’t make sense (there are other laws about that).

        Both sides do tend to frame the discussion in moralizing terms, so my take might be sort of idiosyncratic, but I think the whole thing really turns on the fact that the “traditional definition of marriage” has nothing at all to do with the legal discussion – heterosexual couples aren’t required by the state to have children, to have sex, or even to like each other in order to validate their marriages: the state just doesn’t care.

        • Rachael

          Discriminating on sex, in the way you are describing marriage contracts, starts to seem just as arbitrary as discriminating on number. If the point is to let consenting adults love each other in state-endorsed and socially-recognized ways, then I don’t see where the logic is in the lines you are drawing around SSM but not polygamy. I don’t think incest is a slippery slope– I think it’s a natural extension of the new lines being drawn (centering marriage on adult desires rather procreation and child-rearing). The point, with incest, with polygamy, etc., is that “I have the right to marry whomever I want,” which seems to be the same point that same sex marriage is pushing– an individual’s right to love as they choose. So I still would like to see a coherent definition of marriage that resonates with individual and collective needs and moral fabric. To my knowledge, marriage has been a way of sanctioning sexual acts (that is a morally charged word) and producing legally recognized descendants of two partners.

          And the state does, in fact, care what happens to those descendants (they are, after all, citizens [and thus, concerns] of the state), and what sexual acts to sanction (hence, laws against incest). They even care whether heterosexual couples have children or sex or even like each other, to a suprising extent. In several states, intended consummation is still a requirement for valid marriages, and absence of consummation can be grounds for anullment (as in, the marriage never even happened); I know this is also the case in England and other western countries. You can even receive legal compensation for loss of “consortium” with your spouse; Michael Schiavo was awarded $300,000 from a Florida jury (in the famous Terri Shiavo case).

          So the idea that the marriage definitions are nothing more than legal negotiations, about which the “state just doesn’t care,” is not compelling to me. That may change. But it is simplistic and historically naive, I think, to not acknowledge what is happening when altering definitions of significant concepts or trying to reduce these concepts, like marriage, to legal wrangling. Both sides clearly believe, for the most part, that it is much more than that.

  • Daniel SnowKestral

    To be yourself–to be natural is to be holy. Spirit need not be a splinter in the mind that separates physical from spiritual. This only leads to a dialectical separation between the self, the authentic self, and the holy. It only creates a schism that is alienating. The authentic self is neither simple in the black & white sense, nor can it be boiled down to a flat monoscape of preconceptions on who you can force yourself into being, and allowing others to decide that for you. The authentic, genuine self is comfortable with it’s own nature. To be yourself can be a challenging prospect fraught with great difficulty in terms of growing pains, misundertandings from the interpretations of others, prejudice, etc., but if you are free in yourself, you are free in the world. Love yourself, know yourself, and accept yourself for the beautiful human being you are…and the divine ways (whichever Path that is) will bless you, because you love and bless yourself by coming home to who you are. This takes great courage.

  • Central Texan

    I am not asking SSM proponents to fight for polygamy, only asking them to explain how their cause is any different from other similar causes, using plural marriage as an example — wondering how “civil equality” can be selectively applied only to the GLBT cause. You’ll note Don H. responds by using my option “C” from my second post, saying that’s just not his fight. At the same time, Don seems inclined to cast plural marriage in a negative light, tying it to rape of teenage girls and erroneously calling it a “core belief” of a group he identifies as his “enemy”. Where’s your civil equality, Don?

    Note to Mr. SnowKestral: Are you possibly related to Max Ehrmann? ;-)

  • Don Harryman

    I clearly called the FLDS rapists ‘breakoff groups’. I also specifically identified DC 132 and the limited practice of polygamy in the only way it occurs today in the LDS Church. When you find yourself making things up, you either haven’t read what I actually said or haven’t an argument that can stand on facts.

    • Central Texan

      We’ll leave it for the readers to evaluate.

      I only said that you were inclined to cast the practice of plural marriage in a negative light, which you did by referencing the break-off groups.

      But depending on your definition of “core belief”, you might be right in that the LDS Church DOES believe that plural marriage has, on rare occasions (as with Abraham and others), been sanctioned by God, but the Mormon Church does not believe this is one of those times so it doesn’t make sense to call on the Mormon Church to “push to legalize its core belief of polygamy.”

      • Don Harryman

        What the FLDS breakoff groups do IS reprehensible. I made no comment nor judgment about polygamy beyond that. What most people see or know about polygamy is what those groups do—that isn’t my fault, but it is reality.

  • http://redkonnect.com Bryce

    I really love this rethinking of “self” in the gay marriage discourse. I don’t really see it as favoring a conservative or liberal view, since you show how binaries aren’t necessarily a conservative thing–they’re a rhetoric thing, which both sides are tempted to set up. They’re ultimatums people use when they’re backed into a corner. Although I think he’s justifiably worried about people trying to argue that all gay Mormons should be like Josh Weed, Dehlin seems to be held hostage to what he has already decided about the “gay self.” Great article, Rach.

  • Blythe

    Great article. I hope something this good makes it to a broad audience.